Finding Nourishment and Encouragement

by Robert Raines

Robert Raines is an ordained minister in the United Church of Christ and former Director of the Kirkridge Retreat and Study Center. He is the author of 13 books, including New Life In The Church, Creative Brooding, Going Home, and A Time to Live: Seven Tasks of Creative Aging.

This article appeared in The Christian CENTURY, March 4, 1992, pp. 236-238. Copyright by The Christian Century Foundation; used by permission. Current articles and subscription information can be found at Article prepared for Religion Online by Harry W. Adams.


Drawing on his experience of nearly a half century of ministry – much of it connected with retreats – Raines gives a rationale for the offering of retreat experiences to clergy for purposes of sanctuary, nourishment, study, silence, healing and encouragement.

I made my first retreat in the winter of 1947. John Oliver Nelson, the Presbyterian minister who founded Kirkridge Retreat Center in Bangor, Pennsylvania, in 1942, had invited 15 seminary-bound college students to spend two days and nights in Kirkridge's farmhouse, keeping silence, walking the trails, studying the Bible and praying together. I was touched by the power of this experience and intrigued by the possibilities of retreat ministry. In seminary I was one of ten members of a spiritual journey group which met weekly for three years. In my first parish in Cleveland I explored koinonia groups and went frequently to Shadybrook House, a retreat center outside the city. In the early '70s I found myself in Columbus, Ohio, at a church which had its own camp where many retreats were held every year. My journey came full circle when I became director of Kirkridge in 1974.

For over 17 years I have observed hundreds of clergy' making retreat. While retreat centers differ in heritage and emphasis and though clergy needs and interests rise and fall, I've noticed four recurring needs that consistently motivate clergy to make retreat.

Clergy come seeking sanctuary. Often a minister will say, "I feel safe here." Clergy seek refuge from competition with other clergy, the monitoring presence of denominational superiors, the heavy expectations of parishioners, family tensions or professional frustrations. One minister wrote, "Kirkridge has become a sacred place for me, where I can be safe enough to shed more of my masks." A sanctuary is a place where no one is excluded. In its early years Kirkridge held an annual retreat for "square-peg" seminarians, those who didn't fit the mold. In the '60s and '70s we offered retreats for divorced people, who were still mainly condemned and excluded by the church. In 1977 we held our first retreat for gay and lesbian people of faith, a retreat held annually ever since. A lesbian clergywoman wrote, "I have found at Kirkridge--four times now--a special kind of sanctuary. It is my hope and prayer that one day the sanctuary Kirkridge offers me from a heterosexist church and an often antireligious gay community will no longer be necessary. In the meantime, it is that sanctuary which makes it possible for me to have hope for the church and to keep struggling within it."

Clergy come seeking nourishment. In New Testament Hospitality John Koenig writes of the centrality of the table ministry of Jesus evident especially in Luke. Table hospitality provided a context in which strangers became friends, guests and hosts exchanged roles, and angels were sometimes entertained unawares. Living in common housing and sharing common meals provide the occasion for whatever koinonia will be known. There is no head table nor heads of tables. There is one menu--one loaf, one body, one Host. In the breaking of bread we see and are seen.

At many retreat centers, Bible study is a nourishing staple. Walter Wink and June Keener-Wink have fed retreatants by the thousands at centers around the country and abroad. Phyllis Trible, Tom Boomershine, Walter Brueggemann and others keep feeding us. Poetry has become important food for some clergy in recent years. The familiarity of the Bible may breed a dull spirit, whereas poetry may take us by surprise and refresh our imaginations. Kirkridge has held retreats on the poetry of Blake, Yeats and Dickinson. Poets Denise Levertov, Robert Bly and Wendell Berry and authors such as Frederick Buechner have led retreats providing haunting words, wild images, strange metaphors, soul food.

Retreats often provide a much-needed opportunity to keep silence. It may be savored alone or together after the manner of Quakers. Sometimes people sit in common quiet listening to classical music. The Kirkridge unison prayer begins: "Almighty God, known in our silence and entreated in our hunger for Thee, nourish us now with the common bread of thy grace." A retreat invites us to nourish ourselves. An Episcopal clergywoman writes: "I listen so intently to so many people throughout the year that I need to be fed ... I come needing to be fed, needing quiet, needing to laugh and not take my job so seriously. I come needing the mountain and the rocks and a room of my own." A denominational executive sums it up: "When I think of the embodied spirituality of the retreat, I find it to have been substantive, like good hearty nourishing bread compared to the wonder bread pap so much of the church feeds on."

Clergy come seeking healing. Hans Kung once spoke of the commonwealth of God as God's creation healed. I prefer to speak of "God's creation healing" to describe what often happens to people on retreat. One minister wrote of his loneliness as a clergyman: "I have driven in the dark in my little silver Accord on more than one occasion, realizing that there is no one within 50 miles of where I live with whom I can share my deepest pain or joy, no place where I can experience the quiet exultation and peace of complete acceptance." Clergy need to find places and contexts other than, or in addition to, the parish for such healing. Retreats provide one such opportunity.

For 15 years Monon Kelsey and colleagues have led annual healing retreats. There are daily presentations, small group sharing, the Eucharist and a healing service on the last night of the retreat. At many centers, healing retreats are organized around the theme of addiction. Retreats for adult children of alcoholics are filled to capacity. Sexual issues, often difficult to resolve in congregations and denominational systems, can find both healing and appropriate justice at many retreat centers, where anonymity and freedom offer space to seek both.

Every year healing retreats for women at Kirkridge focus on such issues as finding one's own voice, vocation and justice. Annual events for men deal with fathers, violence, men's crippled capacity for intimacy and lack of male friends. As Dominic Crossan has pointed out, Jesus' acts of healing were always subversive. Biblical healing is not under the control of medical, religious or political authorities. It is available in the commonwealth of God to those who seek it in faith, fear and trembling.

Clergy come seeking encouragement. We need a community of people to remind us that our vocation is to be faithful, not successful; to bear witness, not secure results. It helps to gather and pray together. Wink writes: "History belongs to the intercessors who believe the future into being." Kirkridge's mission is to "picket and pray": to join the work for peace and justice with a serious effort to grow in relationship with God. Clergy are encouraged by reading our materials and meeting other retreatants engaged in justice work.

In 1978 Daniel Berrigan led his first retreat on peacemaking at Kirkridge. He has led one or two such retreats annually ever since. A year ago, as we gathered in the wake of the Gulf war, the grief in the room was palpable. Sharing anguish and anger, and learning that grieving is a necessary part of peace work, was a comfort to us all. Last fall a letter came from a clergyman in the Uniting Church in Australia. "In April 1989 I attended a weekend with Dan Berrigan and I look back on it with gratitude," he wrote. "Since that time, I have dug graves in highways, scattered ashes over Honeywell's offices, been to jail and spent three weeks camping on the Iraq-Saudi border between opposing armies. Not all of this flowed from the weekend--but it certainly must bear some of the responsibility!"

Clergy engaged in a lovers' quarrel with their parish or denomination can find sisters and brothers on retreat. A minister writes: "I honestly don't think I could have stayed 25 years in the ministry without retreat. I have always thought that I didn't really fit in." But on retreat, he said, "I have found soulmates and the strength to go on." Misfits for Christ, soulmates for the struggle, mavericks, square-peg seminarians--such folk are often at the heart of the work of the church.

Clergy who come on retreat are generally a healthy lot. They know they don't have all the answers and are willing to be challenged as well as accepted. They are able to speak of their failures as well as their successes. They're open-minded and not a few are eccentric. Few are pastors of large churches, bishops or denominational executives. Most are in the trenches. They know they need time out and have the wit to arrange it.

Retreats help keep the home fires burning. As Evelyn Underhill once remarked: "To go alone into the mountain and come back as an ambassador to the world has ever been the method of humanity's best friends."